The Cycle of Reform “Fixes”

July 11, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

This is one view of the effects of modern political reform, and here is another, and their conclusions are, in a sense, similar: reforms have not worked as intended. But they don’t have in mind the same failures.

Robert Samuelson thinks the reforms have weakened the political system, undermining political parties and blocking other channels for constructive compromise and effective governance. Isaac Arnsdorf argues that, in the case of lobbying reform, the laws have worsened corrupt practice, not curbed it, and he is most exercised by legislators’ ability to wield influence for private profit after leaving office.

The one commentator thinks we have government enfeebled by the unforeseen effects of reform; and the other sees reform to have left government more corrupt. Both analyses travel the familiar route of making a point that it invites the reader to take too far.

Reforms may have exacerbated trends toward polarization, but it is hard to say by how much. Yet Samuelson, following Jonathan Rauch, expresses the view that “’reforms’ that aim to make the political system more accountable and responsive have had the opposite effect.” This is a strong statement.   Somewhat closer to the truth is that these reforms have had multiple effects, some intended and others less, and a number of intended ones have turned out to complicate, to some not easily defined degree, the difficult business of constructive governing.

On the other side, reforms are never transformative in “cleaning” government or in raising public confidence in their leaders’ probity. The 2007 lobbying reforms were generally reasonable and useful, addressing weaknesses or gaps in then-existing law, but not many imagined that the changes then enacted, or any proposed, would have a dramatic effect. They certainly would not persuade Members to give up post-Congressional careers making money off their experience, knowledge and contacts. There are a number of reasons why a large number of Members select Washington D.C. over a return home. Legal incentives and disincentives are located more at the bottom of the list.

The 2007 reforms could and did, however, extend the “cooling off period” for at least one Chamber’s Members, prohibiting them from undertaking direct lobbying of their former colleagues for two years, and they made other changes, such as tightening disclosure requirements and for the first time subjecting lobbyists to special campaign contribution reporting. Nothing to change the world; but not “nothing” either.

It is never to the benefit of the reform debate to oversell or understate reforms’ usefulness, their likely impacts, or the advantages of rolling them back. It only encourages the disappointment that inevitably follows when the effects are mixed and modest, and rarely the ones expected. Reform skeptics may be quick to point out the failings and to attribute them to the entire reformist enterprise. But reformers are begging for this trouble by overstating their case. The larger the original claim, the more bitter the frustration over the actual outcome, and the easier the arguments that reform was misguided in the first place.

The reform community reaction is often to rage at the results and to seek out the conspiracy responsible for them: the “circumvention,” the cheating. At which point reformers insist that still stronger medicine is needed, and the new cure is also over-promoted, setting the entire cycle back into motion.

Trevor Potter, a leading reformer, recently delivered a fresh speech on the urgency reform that brings these considerations to mind. He argues that voters are offended by money in politics and a government beholden to the special interests: he cites polling data, resting his case on appearances and the risk of poisonous public disaffection of the kind that destroyed democracy in Germany in the years between the World Wars of the 20th Century.But then he turns from appearance to reality and contends, taking a step further, that the corruption seen by the public is actually occurring.

Politicians, Potter argues, are raising money all the time, responsive only to their donors and to lobbyists and unable to accomplish much else.  Compromise is hard to achieve; polarization is on the rise, compounded by gerrymandering. Public policy is slighted and even worse: he cites one view that the political money chase is so intense that it has distracted our elected officials from their duties in foreign policy and constitutes a “national security threat.”

Potter says that “the good news is that we can fix these problems”—with reform, lots of it, from campaign finance to redistricting, and onto prohibitions on fundraising by Members of Congress during the work week. He is confident that the we can predict success, because we have had it in the past:

[W}e have successfully addressed money in politics problem in this country—in the Progressive era, and again after the Watergate scandal, and then with the McCain-Feingold reforms in 2002.

If so much success, why, then, the perpetual complaints about money in politics?  The answer is that special interests “will always try and find a way around” the reforms. So continuous vigilance is required and “ongoing corrections as needed.”

So we can’t really “fix” the problem: we have to accept that what is fixed will break and that new repairs, more extensive than the last, may be the order of the day. As will be the profound frustration that has marked previous fixes that made a difference here and there and might well have been worthwhile in one respect or the other, but could never work quite the way they were designed and—especially– marketed.

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